Medieval Days Out in England - Pensthorpe, Norfolk
A day spent exploring the medieval history of England can be both an enjoyable and educational experience, as we found out earlier this week. The late-August bank holiday saw us heading up to the Pensthorpe Nature Reserve near Fakenham in Norfolk, where their three-day-long Medieval Spectacular was in full swing. Our party was mixed in age - two adults, one senior citizen, plus two boys of eleven and three. With an age range spanning almost sixty five years, pleasing everyone might have been considered a challenge. Thankfully, I can safely say that every one of us had a fantastic day out.
Pensthorpe is the ideal setting for an authentic medieval experience. It is secluded and beautiful and if it was not for the many visitors that head for the reserve during this rather special event, you could almost feel as though you really had stepped back in time. Upon our arrival, we were just in time to see the 'Viking' invasion - a reenactment of a Viking longboat appearing at the edge of a tiny village of tents. 'Vikings' clad in traditional dress tore into the village, taking the folk by surprise - a battle started up, women and children were screaming and a young girl was 'kidnapped'.....
My three year old son, who is currently obsessed with all things 'knight', was absolutely terrified. He had been anticipating this day with great enthusiasm, but his inability to separate fantasy from reality got the better of him. 'They're going to kill me!' he cried. For any parents of young children, it is worth mentioning that his fear didn't last very long. Once he realised that the 'knights' at Pensthorpe were not about to wield their trusty swords and were actually quite nice folk who let him get his hands on all their stuff (encouraged it, even), he had a complete turnaround.
Learning About Armour and Weapons
One of the key interests of the day - for all of us - was the chance to learn about all the displayed armour and weapons. Both of my sons - even the youngest - were thrilled at the chance to handle swords, spears, daggers and shields. Of course, all were blunt, though very heavy - they are used for real battle reenactments. My oldest son asked a lot of intelligent questions about the weaponry, and was rewarded with some very lengthy and detailed answers from friendly enthusiasts who certainly knew their stuff. The entire Spectacular was like a real-life history lesson.
There was a whole range of armour and weaponry on display, ranging from early Viking times onwards. Visitors were encouraged to feel the heavy weight of the chainmail - lifting it just once left us all with an insight into just what it must have been like to have to battle with it on. My eleven year old had to go one step further than the rest of us - he actually asked if he could try it on. His wish was granted, and he was enthusiastically dressed from head to toe in medieval costume, before suitable weaponry was chosen. The picture is on the right - it is a little dark, but none-the-less presents a young knight in rather oversized protection!
Making chainmail was a painstakingly lengthy process. Each tiny section was put together separately - every single ring was inter-connected by four more rings, and was thus known as the four-in-one weave. We were informed it would have taken one person about a week to produce one finished piece, and that they would have spent that time doing nothing else. When you consider how many tiny pieces of metal make up one piece of chainmail, it was indeed an arduous task.
There were many helmets available to try on, and both of the children enjoyed this. Most were too big for my little one, but he didn't really care!
Attempts at Shooting Crossbow and Archery
A highlight for the children was the chance to shoot crossbows. We had to pay extra for this - £1 per four arrows. Once you get the hang of it, it doesn't take long to shoot four arrows; thus, we spent about £8 on this activity. It was nice that even my three year old was allowed to try his luck - his Dad helped him and together they shot down an illustrated knight target and a tin can! My older son shot like a pro and loved it - I think he might have spent all day doing this if he could!
The Crossbow Shooting was set up in a small stall to the edge of the main arena, where several events were held throughout the day. The Archery tent was also to be found here, as well as many other stalls selling children's wooden shields and swords; medieval costumes, ceramics, jewellery and more professional weaponry for the adult enthusiast (some up to several hundred pounds a piece).
My son really enjoyed the archery and now wants a quality bow and arrow.
Nine Men's Morris
Pensthorpe's Medieval Spectacular was about more than battling knights. It portrayed the medieval way of life, and one of the most fun activities (weapons aside) was the chance to take 'Sir Richard' up on his challenge to beat him at 'Nine Men's Morris'.
Nine Men's Morris is one of the oldest board games - it was popular during Roman times, but it is thought that it could have been played even earlier. It is actually a very enjoyable and challenging game, played on a wooden board. The aim is to move one's pieces around to achieve 'three-in-a-row' - the board is empty to begin with, and both players slot their pieces in anywhere they choose. Of course, you have to remember to block your opponent's lines (in that respect, it is a little like Connect 4, albeit on a flat board). However, if you do manage to make a line of three, the game is not over - instead, you get to take off any of your opponent's pieces.
When all pieces are on the board, they are simply moved to a consecutive spot until a line of three is made. Each time, the successful player takes away another of their opponent's pieces. The first player to lose all their pieces is out of the game, and the other player is the winner.
My older son absolutely loved this game. He was really up for the challenge, and played 'Sir Richard' several times. 'Sir Richard' had an authentic medieval coin, and said that he would give the coin to my son if he beat him. My son didn't manage this, despite trying very hard. I asked 'Sir Richard' if anyone had beat him at all throughout the day - he said they had not.
I was so impressed by Nine Men's Morris (sometimes known as Merrelles) that I could see a place for it in today's toy market. It is a strategic and skillfull game. 'Sir Richard' informed me that it is actually still in production today - I Googled it when I returned home and found a lovely example on Amazon.
Catching the Witch
During the medieval period, witches were commonly feared and hunted down. The fate of a captured witch was never positive and a fair trial was commonly denied. 'Magic' was seen as evil, and anyone accused of being a witch faced death.
At Pensthorpe's Medieval Spectacular, it stands to reason that nobody died. However, there was a dramatic reenactment of a witch hunt, as huge swarms of villagers hunted down the 'accused'. She was brought back to waiting crowds on the back of a wooden cart, amidst much cruel jeering. Her punishment for her heinous crime was death by hanging - the noose was ready and waiting.
This witch managed to escape death. After being forced to admit that she was, indeed, guilty of witchcraft, she was allowed to hold onto her life only if she named the other 'witches' in her circle. With the noose taunting her, she did so.
Coin Striking, Fortune Telling and More
There were several other demonstrations and exhibits at the Medieval Spectacular, other the than ones mentioned so far. Most of these I haven't gone into great depth over, mainly because we didn't spend as much time on them. No particular reason for this, other than that the children mostly favoured the other activities. After all, we are talking about boys here, and boys tend to like the blood and battle side of things.
But should you have an interest in medieval cooking, for instance, then you could see it in action and learn all about it. Thus, there was a tent dedicated to authentic medieval products used for cleaning oneself (handmade soap) and natural substances used for minor ailments. The women in charge of this were very knowledgeable, thus providing a very interesting and informal history lesson. This was contained within the 'living history' area, a short path which was well worth the stroll.
Also, at the far end of the path was a little gate through which a woman sat outside a wooden hut attracting 'villagers' with her fortune telling skills. Whether or not marriage was on the cards was the main focus of interest, whenever I was listening. You can see her picture to the right. Also within this small compound was a man demonstrating how he produced a fire and used it for various tasks such as boiling water and cooking. My son was slightly obsessed with this, and was allowed to help by adding extra twigs and leaves.
The Alchemist (who sought the exilir of life and the Philosopher's Stone) was a rather formidable character who was very solemn and sparse with words. His many 'useful' ingredients included rocks and crystals, unlabelled 'potions' and even dead mice and frogs. Experiments were conducted at 12pm and 3pm, a fact he eerily repeated each time we tried to talk to him.
Medieval coin striking was enjoyed by both the children - we did have to pay a further £1 each for this but it was a nice souvenir to take home. The children hammered their own stamps onto the coins, even my little one, for whom the hammer was rather over-sized.
The Barber Surgeon was surely worth a visit - here one could discover various medical solutions from long ago, such as tooth extraction minus anthaesetic!
There was also entertainment throughout the day in the main arena - this included falconry, music and dancing. Then, of course, there was the grand, final tournament.
The Final Tournament
The big finale of the Medieval Spectacular was the Tournament. We were all looking forward to this. By now, the late afternoon was warm and sunny, and we sat down on the grass with a half pint of local ale from the nearby stall. The knights, head to toe in traditional costume and sporting swords and shields, paraded around the ring as they were introduced.
The Tournament was presented in a lighthearted and jovial manner. 'Prince Arthur' was present, as were several other key figures from the past. There were many one-on-one battles with much clashing of shields and swords - it was very entertaining, although my three year old (dressed in his own knight costume) got up and performed his own skills with the sword on the field behind. For some children, just watching isn't enough!
The Final Tournament was an hour long, although halfway through a medieval puppet show began on the grass nearby for any children who fancied something a little more sedate. My children stayed with the battle, and then had their own with some of the other kids. After all, I'm not sure there was a child in sight who hadn't bought their own sword, dagger, axe or bow and arrow!
All in all, our day out at Pensthorpe's Medieval Spectacular was a fun-filled, interesting and highly educational experience. My youngest child keeps asking when we can go again - unfortunately, I have had to explain that we will have to wait until next summer and that it is quite a long time. For now, he has his brand new sword and wooden shield - a happy reminder of his day.